Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Another book review, this one from SFX #230.


Author: Melanie Rawn

Publisher: Titan Books

431 pages

Full marks for originality to this first book in the Touchstone series, which deals with the efforts of a theatre troupe to become the next big thing on the theatre circuit.

Rawn’s fantasy troupe is imaginatively constructed, comprising a tregetour (a writer who charges the troupe’s magic doodads pre-show) a masker (the only actor) a glisker (who channels the tregetour’s magic) and a fettler (who fettles – the magic in this case). The troupe, Touchstone, start off minus a glisker, before taking on board a man who is (mostly) Elf. He’s brilliant, but he also has a drug problem…

 Glass Thorns proves that fantasy doesn’t have to be about Earth-shattering war to grip, in this it’s a little like KJ Parker, (that’s the one similarity. This is much… bouncier).

There are three criticisms we can level at Glass Thorns. Firstly, it’s a difficult read. Rawn uses a ton of outmoded English to good effect, and it’s not that, but her tumbling sentences that are arduous. Secondly, in her world everyone is a mongrel crossbreed between a slew of familiar fantasy races – a good idea that doesn’t make much sense. Lastly, she hasn’t quite captured the way men think. Most of her characters are men, but they kind of behave and think like females. Granted, whether or not we’re attractive and our relationships with our parents concern we men too, but we deal with it differently. Otherwise, a refreshingly different fantasy adventure.

Did you know?

Most of the unusual “fantasy” words in the book are genuine, including “snarge”, “collifobble” and “glisk”.

Now I’ve only got a few bits and bobs left from Death Ray to put up, I’m starting to trawl through my old reviews for other places. I have, of course, done this before, but I’m going to be a little bit more organised about it from now on. This is from SFX #227.


Author: Ian Douglas

Publisher: Harper Voyager

357 pages

Battlestar Above and Beyond

Military SF is as American as testy insularity and fructose-induced obesity. There are moments in Earth Strike where you practically want to punch the air and shout “Hell yeah! America!” In a book about a multinational organisation, all the major characters are American, serving aboard a spaceship called America. But it is military SF; Douglas knows his market. Written to the best-seller beat of frequently repeated information, breathless infodumps and throttle-yanking action, Earth Strike at least has a pace that drags the reader along.

The plot is artfully straightforward: Mankind is approaching a Vingean singularity. An alien empire of extreme vintage and vast power would like us to stop, please. As nobody tells the Americans what to do, war begins.

Packed to the galactic gunwhales full of hard speculation on near-lightspeed combat, it’s superior to Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet and other war-stories that cover similar ground by dint of its crisp readability. The science is explained clearly and repeated often enough for all to grasp it – cool stuff, if implausible in parts. The characters and aliens fit into the usual slots – the aliens have lots of apostrophes, Admiral Koenig could only be played by Edward James Olmos – but it’s forgivable shorthand. And there is the exception of one of the lead characters, a technology-hating outsider, who adds a bit of freshness.

That old Republican lament about hard-working military types being undermined by politicians is front and centre, but again, military SF, isn’t it? Fun, fast-paced war.

Did you know?

Ex-serviceman Ian Douglas has written a shedload of books, including two 1980s Doctor Who titles.

This interview with Charlie Higson was one of the very last I did for Death Ray, completed for the never published issue #22 back in 2009. Here he talks about his zombie book, The Enemy. It’s really rather good. So good, in fact, it was one of three entertainments that stopped me hating zombies and begin to appreciate them.

Life After Laughs

Charlie Higson, Fast Show alumnus, has a whole new career – children’s author, and his latest is very good indeed. It’s kids versus adult zombies in The Enemy. 

Like the Monty Python team, the guys and gals of the Fast Show went their separate ways after a handful of glorious years, leaving an hilarious cultural relic in their wake. Now they’re producing new entertainments of varying kinds for we, the lucky public. Charlie Higson (Ted and Ralph, Swiss Toni, Bob Fleming et al.) has continued writing for TV, as well as penning a series of novels for adults, but it is as an author of children’s fiction that he has found his greatest success. A huge Bond fan, Higson was approached by the Ian Fleming Estate to pen a Young Bond series. It was a storming success, and Higson decided to continue writing books for kids.

Following a similar vein of juvenile protagonists and action sequences, his latest novel, The Enemy, sees Higson strike out into horror territory. Set in London after a plague has killed the majority of adults, the remaining few left as mindless, ravening beasts, it follows a group of kids as they attempt to survive. By turns gripping and horrific, we’re sure it’ll be a hit.

Death Ray: The Enemy is a great book, it’s really quite horrifying and scary.

Charlie Higson: That was my plan, just scare the shit out of some children!

DR: What’s the ideal number of kids traumatised?

CH: Millions would be nice! It’s amazing actually, kids are into scary stuff and horror. I mean, we did a launch at the London Tombs. There’s various things to look at, but the basis of the place is a walkthrough underground, through the ancient vaults beneath London Bridge, in the complete dark, while various people dressed as zombies leap out at you. My eldest two kids were there, and they are really into horror. They were pretty blase about it, they’d been to the London dungeon, and they were sort of laughing, they came out and they were absolutely shitting themselves! But the thing was they were then on this massive high for the rest of the evening, just incredibly exhilarated, talking about this stuff, so you could see that it had really given them a jolt, and I think that’s one of the joys of scary things, it is experiencing these emotions that you are not used to. What also struck me in the queue there, was that I’m going to start getting a lot of children dressed in black turning up at signings that I didn’t used to get. You realise what a big thing horror is for kids these days.

DR: Surely sneaking off to watch a horror movie without your parents knowing, has been a rite of passage for a long time.

CH: It always has been. Growing up in the 60s, for us it was Hammer Horror films, late night on TV. I mean, those today wouldn’t be x-certificate, 18s, they’d probably be 12s. Kids do have a greater tolerance for it, Harry Potter in the 60s would have been an x-certificate! You know, the worst thing was in the queue at the launch there was this tiny little girl, she can’t have been much more than ten, and I was like, ‘What’s the scariest film that you’ve seen?’ and she said ‘Hmm, I think probably Saw‘. She was really scared by the clown, I asked her and she wasn’t bothered by the gore. And her parents were there, with her! I mean, I wouldn’t let my ten year old watch Saw. I did let him watch Alien though.

DR: I think there’s a bit of a difference between, to my mind, something that is obviously fantasy like Alien and real people hurting real people…

CH: Yeah, nasty things, like you get in Eastenders! But it’s funny, my 10-year-old will happily watch Jaws or Alien, but he was absolutely terrified of Mathilda, because the teacher in it he found really scary, it was something he could relate to his own life.

DR:  Why go for horror, you’ve done Bond…

CH: I love genre fiction, I’ve got no time for literary fiction. I love thrillers, and the scary books as well. I wanted to do something that was different to Young Bond, I wanted to do something contemporary, in a different genre, something that wasn’t just repeating the same tricks. As a teenager I loved horror movies, so I thought if I can give some of that vibe to younger kids in a book, that would be good, and if you do have a book that really has a big emotional impact on someone then they will remember it for a long time.

DR: Zombies are really big at the moment. When did they get their claws into you?

CH: I’ve been into zombies ever since seeing Night of the Living Dead in the 70s. There’s something fascinating about zombies, but this explosion of zombie stuff recently, most of that has come since I made the decision to start writing the book. And my ten-year-old, he’s absolutely obsessed with zombies, they scare him, a lot, he won’t watch the zombie films, but they fascinate him.

In a kids book, particularly mine where you are dealing with ideas of violence and death, you have to be a bit careful about killing people willy-nilly, but the great thing about zombies is that you can do what you like to them. They are a nice safe target, they’re not controversial on any level. They are a perfect enemy for a kids book, because the kids can quite happily kill ’em, without getting into trouble.

DR: Another thing that is highlighted very well is that the book is that these are the people that used to protect them.

CH: I like that idea of sort of kids versus adults, it taps into the games you play with children, the classic game of being a scary monster and chasing kids around the house and them hiding and them getting too scared, getting overexcited and crying. And then you get a little bit scared doing it, because you have scared them so much. That goes right back to fairytales, little people facing up to ogres and giants, and the ogres and the witches and the giants trying to eat the children, basically. I mean that kind of idea, of adults being scary, out to consume you, is quite a potent one.

DR: What used to scare me as a kid was the feeling of being helpless in the face of something much stronger than you, which you touch on, but your kids aren’t helpless are they?

CH: I wanted to give them a sense of empowerment through the book. It’s not like Lord of the Flies, which is about children turning into savages when left to their own devices, it’s about actually children ganging together and helping each other and being strong in the face of all this. There’s a more positive message there, it’s not utterly bleak.

I’ve a few more Death Ray articles left to put up here, really a bare handful. Here’s one of the last, a review of Charlie Higson’s really rather good zombie book, The Enemy.


Charlie Higson

Ex-Fastshow member leaves behind the antics of young James Bond, sets out to frighten children with thrilling zombie horror, mostly succeeds.

Like a lot of modern zombies, those in The Enemy are not dead, but diseased, like those in 28 Days Later and such. But where the adult protagonists of such fiction have to deal with the collapse of their world, the loss of their loved ones and the end of conveniently sited coffee shops, the kids in the enemy have to cope with their parents trying to eat them. It’s a hugely effective way of scaring the doo-doo right out of young-ish backsides, we expect more than a few nightmares as the result of this one.

The book, the first of a new series for the Young James Bond scribe, begins in Waitrose, where a gang of kids are struggling to survive some time after a mysterious plague killed most of the adults and turned the remainder into monsters. Led by the weary but capable teen Arran and his deputy Maxie, the gang decide to team up with the local Morrison’s kids to trek to Buckingham Palace after a messenger arrives from there, promising them an earthly paradise. Naturally, the journey is hard, and the new lad hasn’t exactly been telling the truth.

There’s enough action and scares in The Enemy to keep even the most jaded teen horror fan enthralled, while Higson writes with practised ease, moving his cast from one peril to the next, from massed adult attacks to an assault by diseased chimpanzees, finally to the rising of a zombie army under the command of a football fan whose mind is less rotted than most. If Death Ray were a more conservative publication, we’d no doubt be outraged by the book’s violence, but we were weaned on this stuff, and here it serves a purpose: despite some mildly wanton behaviour on the part of the children (smashing things up, rampant graffiti) it actually portrays youngsters in a very positive light. These are kids who band together to survive, who protect one another, sacrifice themselves for each other and are trying to build a new world from the ashes of the old, uncertain if they’re going to live another day, or if they’ll remain uninfected once they too become adult even if they dos. It’s a mirror image of Lord of the Flies, a blood smeared one, but it holds a kinder reflection of children; Higson’s kids are responsible and brave (he pointedly has one character talk about the rougher kids effectively wiping themselves out by acting like savages).

It’s perfect for teens, reminding us of the Tower King, a similar tale told in the 1980’s relaunch of Eagle, but it is way too scary for smaller children, the idea of powerlessness in the face of adult strength (though more than one overcomes this) or that of your parents turning on you is the kind that doles out long-lasting shivers with abandon – these are close to home horrors.

And it is, under its talk of Waitrose and Morrison’s kids banding together, a trifle middle-class, a little bit 70s Survivors, perhaps. Groups of nasty, bad children would remain, though his point that those who co-operated would perhaps fare better is a valid one, ne’er do wells would survive through raiding the better organised brainboxes we’d say (room for this in sequels, not doubt).

Higson does a good job, in the main, of rooting the story in the real world (he walked the route the children take, and London is meticulously described) but here and there its fantasy gets a bit out of hand and undermines the effect – a troglodytic, uninfected adult succumbing, vampire like, to the sun, and the idea that everyone over the age of fourteen becomes ill is rather specific when physical development differs from individual to individual This is a book for bright kids, and bright kids will spot that. Minor flaws, though. A gripping, and, peculiarly, uplifting, read.


Not the cover of the edition I read, that was so bad I’m saving you from having to look at it.


Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

180 pages

This book’s been in my collection for 15 years, according to the press release slip I found still preserved inside the cover. It’s set on a world dominated by the ocean, fittingly I read it on top of a cliff by the roaring sea.
A man wakes up on a beach in a strange world, next to him is a woman he doesn’t recognise but who he knows means everything to him. When she vanishes, he sets off to rescue her, taking him on a mind-bending journey that is a little like The Wizard of Oz for grown-ups, but with a lot more sea and a lot more sex.
Themes of circularity, eternity, free will, love and the persistence of self in the face of death means this lines up very closely with my own stories, so I was bound to love it.
Pleasingly enigmatic, gloriously written and full of invention, A Short, Sharp Shock is a book I’ll come back to in my twilight years. There’s a certain comfort to it that takes the edge off mortality.

If you’ve read and enjoyed A Short, Sharp Shock, do check out Champion of Mars (here’s the ebook). They’re thematically close.

An unpublished interview with Eoin Colfer, from the never finished final issue of Death Ray. This piece comes from 2009, and was written when Colfer had completed his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy sequel.

It’s a brave man who’d attempt a sequel to one of the best-loved humorous book sequences of all time. Step forward Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl author, and possessor of the best in Irish pluck.

Best known as the (highly successful) author of the Artemis Fowl series, concerning the adventures of a youthful criminal mastermind (lately reformed) and his dealings with technologically-advanced fairies, Eoin Colfer is a firm favourite of kids worldwide. His novels, humorous affairs with a touch of darkness, have been compared to Douglas Adams, so it’s perhaps natural that his agent and Adams’ agent should hit upon asking the writer to pen a sixth book in the Hitchhikers series, an idea Adams’ widow and daughter were both keen on, being big fans. Colfer, however, was less than enthusiastic at first.

“Originally I said this is craziness, and what’s more, nobody should do it, not just me, but not anybody. But my agent said think about it. I thought about it, and I started to have a few ideas and I thought, you know, I could have a blast with this, it could really rejuvenate me as regards enjoying writing, because I had been feeling a little, not jaded, but not as enthusiastic as I normally am. A bit wrung out after 10 years and twenty books. I was a little bit knackered, I think is the medical term!”

Feeling invigorated at the prospect of a challenge, Colfer said yes, but only on condition that the deal could be done quickly…

“It can take months to get contracts for these things sorted out. But I knew there’d be a big reaction to this. I wrote it really quickly, in about six months, so it was a weird experience to go into someone else’s universe. I just wanted to get it over with quickly, because I reckon the brown stuff is going to hit the air disperser and I just wanted to put my head down and weather it. There’s so much outside interest, there are a lot of fans, and the Hitchhikers books mean a lot to them. I want to try and win them over without crawling to them, because I don’t want to be craven, you see.”

By that he means that fans should not expect his take on The Salmon of Doubt – Colfer was offered notes culled from the fertile archeological grounds of Adams’ hard drive, but declined them. He also wrote in his own style, and did not try to imitate the man.

“A lot of people try to write like Douglas Adams when they’re doing intros to his books or an article about him,” he explains, “and I really wanted to avoid doing that because it rarely works. I think Neil Gaiman did it once, just a few lines in the intro to his book Don’t Panic!, but he’s the only guy that I’ve seen who could do it, and then he didn’t do it for the whole book, just a little fond thing at the start. Other than that, forget it, Douglas Adams’ is the master, just leave it alone, so.”

Colfer puts his own reticence to try and ape Adams’ style down to their vastly differing backgrounds.

“I think my style is probably similar but diluted. Douglas had a way of doing this zany prose that was a lot to do with where he went to school, with footlights in the 1960s, the 70s, where there was this very much kind of upper class British humour, laced with social consciousness and absurdity that I don’t have. I mean, I’m a lower middle-class Irish country boy, so it would be ridiculous for me to try and pretend that I had these years of going to Cambridge. Douglas did all these things, he wrote for Monty Python, he jammed with Pink Floyd… There are four or five things you should not mess with in English entertainment culture, and that would be Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Pink Floyd, Douglas Adams, and Tony Hancock. You don’t mess with them because they have transcended their medium to become a part of people’s lives, and it doesn’t really matter in a way what they are any more, because they’re a memory for people. If I try to ape Douglas at all I’d just be totally shooting myself in the foot, and the series as well. So I just thought I’d bring something of myself to it, with the odd little nod, one or two sentences here or there, like Neil Gaiman did, just a little taste hopefully to show my respect for the original. I imagined Simon Jones or John Cleese reading what I was writing out loud, if it sounded right, then I knew I was on the right track, and I kept doing that until I got into it.”

Colfer says that it was not a big leap from YA fiction to HHTG. They’re ostensibly adult books, but he says most people discover as teenagers, and that he’d always written his novels to that kind of level, although writing in Adams’ milieu meant that he no longer had to hold back when the odd bout of swearing or explicit topic came up. What he did find challenging, however, is thinking about how the fans might react to his trespass of some of SF’s holiest ground.

“People are very emotional about Hitchhiker, I know I am because it was a big part of my youth, and when something becomes a big part of your teen years it just stays with you. I don’t want people to have this great fondness for it and then suddenly, bang, here comes this guy and it’s all glib one-liners and it doesn’t mean anything, I think it the reviews so far have said exactly what I’ve wanted, they’ve said it’s not Douglas Adams writing, because he’s gone. It’s not somebody trying to copy Douglas Adams but it’s a funny book, and it’s a nice addition to the shelf. And that’s the best I can do. But I’m, I’m very worried about tours. I’m not worried about the US tour, but the UK tour is going to be tough, because you have to face Douglas’s real fans, the guys who love him. I’ve met a lot of them now and they’ve been very nice, so maybe I’m being worried without foundation, but I think they are going to ask me hard questions, and they’re right to do that. There’s a lot of guys who are going to say, listen, I don’t agree with the idea of this book, and so I’m not going to read it, and I would say, fair enough but I don’t accept it’s a horrible book unless you read it. I was at Comicon, San Diego, a couple of weeks ago, and this guy came up to the stall and he took a proof and he said ‘I’m going to read this before I hate it,’ and I said ‘Thank you very much.’ He was kind of funny, but he kind of encapsulated I suppose what I was afraid of.”

Colfer says there might be further sequels, but that he will not be writing them, once as a tribute is enough, he says, any more than that and it would look like he was trying to take over, something he’s really keen to avoid, and he doesn’t not want people to think he took up the pen simply for the cash, either. “It’s definitely not a financial thing, I am very well paid for what I do, and I would have been better off writing another of my own books. I turned down an earlier opportunity to write a sequel book, in fact, because then I wasn’t established and it would have looked too much like I was jumping on a bandwagon. The main reason I did it, I suppose if I’m honest was that Douglas’ agent said that he wanted, and Jane, his widow, wanted Hitchhikers to be introduced to a new generation, and that I could probably do it for them. It’s hard to say no to that.”